HL Deb 10 December 1957 vol 206 cc960-9

2.48 p.m.

LORD MANCROFT rose to move, That the Draft Army Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1957, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the object of the draft Order in Council which is now before the House for approval is to continue the Army Act, 1955, in force next year. It has been duly laid in accordance with those provisions of the Act which provide that the Act shall expire twelve months after it came into operation, which was on 1st January last. The Army Act may be continued by Order in Council for a year at a time, subject to the approval of the draft Order by both Houses of Parliament. A further provision is that, unless Parliament otherwise determines, the Army Act cannot be continued by Order in Council beyond the expiration of five years of its coming into force; that is, after the end of 1961. Thus, in the ordinary course, this Order in Council procedure will recur in each of the next three years. But in 1961 a new Army Act will be required for operation in 1962.

Your Lordships may recollect that the old Army Act, which was passed in 1881, had to be continued in force annually by the passing of the Army (Annual) Act. Since the birth of the Royal Air Force, this was entitled the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act. This procedure, of course, made it possible to make amendments to the Act, but under the new Order in Council procedure it is not possible to amend the new Act. It must either be continued as it is for another year or be allowed to expire at the end of this month. In that event, the Army would, for all practical purposes, pack up, since there would be no legal sanction for the enforcement of military discipline.

This new procedure was devised by a Select Committee which was set up in another place in 1952 to bring up to date the old Army Act. Despite the fact that it had had over 900 Amendments made to it since 1881 (and it seemed like 9,000 Amendments to those of us who had to stick them in our copies), the Act was outmoded and required radical revision. The Select Committee considered whether the new Act should be a permanent one, like the Naval Discipline Act. They decided against this course. They recommended, instead, the new procedure which I have outlined. It is proposed, when the new legislation is introduced in 1961, to refer it to a similar Select Committee. Thus, my Lords, one of the means by which Parliament controls the Army has been preserved. Each year the consent of Parliament will still have to be sought to the continuance of the legislative sanction for the discipline of the Army, without which it could not live.

I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships that the transition from the old Act to the new took place without hitch and with remarkable smoothness. The interval between the passing of the new Act in May, 1955, and its coming into operation in January last allowed sufficient time for the issue of all the relevant regulations and instruments (the Act itself required no fewer than 100 to be made), and the adequate instruction of the officers and authorities whose duty it is to adminster military law.

The new Act has now been in force for almost a year, and there is no doubt that it has worked well. Only one alteration has been required. The enlistment provisions were modified, by the passing of the Army (Conditions of Enlistment) Act, in July last. There have been no major difficulties in administering the new Act. Its operation has not led to any increase, either in the number of courts-martial or in the number of cases going to the Courts-Martial Appeal Court. The disciplinary code of the Army is now an up-to-date one, which is being well and impartially administered by courts-martial and these authorities whose duty it is to dispense military law. I accordingly recommend your Lordships to approve the draft Order in Council. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Army Act, 1955 (Continuation) Order, 1957, be approved.—(Lord Mancroft.)

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, I gather that the new Army Act is working satisfactorily. It must be a great convenience to those who have to administer it no longer to have the old Army Act, with a mass of small pasted interlineations, additions and amendments that we used to have before the war and, in fact, during the war.

While the new Army Act is an improvement, it is, I think, important for us to know whether there will be an Army for it to administer, because if the recruiting figures go on as they seem to be going at the moment it faces the country and Parliament with a serious problem. I wish to refer your Lordships to the debate in this House which took place on July 31 last, when the noble Lord, Lord Man-croft, with his usual optimism and enthusiasm, gave us far too rosy a picture of the future of the voluntary Army. In the course of his speech, the noble Lord said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 205 (No. 99), col. 505]: If there should be some panacea, some new idea, which would bring in recruits, then we should like to know about it. But I do not believe that such an idea exists. I believe that only a combination of all these things, carried out with vigour and enthusiasm, will give us the results. I interrupted the noble Lord and said: If there is no panacea, and if the other measures have not been successful in the past, is it not dangerous for the Government to pin their whole policy on the fact that we intend by recruiting to get a voluntary Army? The noble Lord replied: I do not agree with the noble Lord. These things have not been tried vigorously enough in the past, and they have not been tried with an Army that is going back to an entirely voluntary basis. Of course, they were tried with an Army which was on a voluntary basis before the war.

Let us look at the position to-day, having regard to that optimistic statement in July last. According to the figures for October this year—the latest figures we have—the total Royal Navy and Royal Marine recruiting figures are 747, as compared with 904 for the corresponding period in 1956. For the Army, they are 2,123, as compared with 3,663 in October, 1956. For the Royal Air Force they are 1,942 as compared with 2,703 in 1956. For all Services, they are 4,812 as compared with 7,270 a year ago. I mention the other arms because it was said that the possible effect of the ceasing of National Service would be that people would flock into the Navy and Air Force and that the Army might not benefit as the other Services would. As we see from these figures, all the three Services are deficient in recruits, and the numbers are lower than they were only a year ago.

I should like to ask two questions. First, does the noble Lord now seriously maintain that we are going to get a sufficient Army for our purposes by voluntary recruitment? May I say that no one is more anxious than I am that we should do so. I believe in a voluntary Army. I know that not only does National Service have a grave effect on industry, but it is also difficult to run a highly technical force, whether it is an Army, a Navy or an Air Force contingent, when you have National Service. In these days of technical Services, it is very difficult to carry on with a purely National Service organisation. We do need volunteers, but it is no good blinding ourselves to facts. On the Government's own figures—the figures I have quoted—those who are best able to judge have told me that this will mean a Regular voluntary Army of some 80,000 men instead of an Army of 160,000 men, which is, I think, the minimum that we need for our purposes. That is what the House and the country ought to be told. Is this so? If it is so, what are the Government going to do about it? It is no good coming to the end of National Service and finding that we have not sufficient forces to meet our commitments. I think we should be told the situation.

The second point is a more technical point, but it has a great bearing on the first, and it is this: how many of the men on three-year engagements are likely to convert to six years or nine years? This is important, because in October of this year 1,020 had engaged for three years. If those men are taken out—if they do not re-engage—it will mean an enormous difference to the numbers in the Regular Army. Therefore we want to know how many of them are likely to convert into six or nine year engagements. I have been told that the percentage is likely to be very small indeed, but I hope that that is not so. These are vital questions. The whole future of our Forces is at stake, and it is right that we should know from the Government what the actual situation is.

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord who has just sat down will forgive me if I do not allow him to lead me into temptation and talk about recruiting. To a considerable extent I share his fears, and I very much hope that we may have a day to talk about all these matters. I rise merely to say that, from what I have seen, I feel sure that my noble friend Lord Mancroft is absolutely right when he says the new court-martial procedure has got off to a good start. I think we ought to be able to run for the full term of this new Act without having to try to amend the disciplinary clauses of the Act, though I would not be quite so certain about the enlistment clauses, which have been amended once. I will come back to a suggestion I have made more than once in this House. The present Army Act procedure is not right. There should be an Army Discipline Act, which should be the one for which Parliamentary sanction is obtained every year, and an Army Enlistment Act which can be amended from time to time as conditions alter.

Meanwhile, I feel certain that no one will regret the step that was taken in presenting the new Army Act. As my noble friend Lord Mancroft, said, the revision of the old Army Act was entrusted to a Select Committee composed entirely of Members of another place. When my noble friend said that revision of the new Act, after a certain time, would be entrusted to a similar Select Committee. I was not quite certain whether he was indicating that Members of this House would be permanently excluded from any inquiry of this sort into the future Army Act. If so, of course, then the words "Parliamentary control" which he used would not be entirely correct what would be correct would be the control of another place. I certainly hope that at this stage of the proceedings the Government have not already pledged themselves to exclude this House from any part in the Select Committee in two or three years' time.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and gallant friend Lord Bridgeman for his intervention. I remember that, at the time the Spens Committee was set up, the point he has raised gave rise to misgivings in your Lordships' House. I shall have to refresh my memory as to what was decided, but I appreciate the importance of the point and I wilt certainly look into it. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, is quite right in saying that recruiting is hardly the principal subject which arises out of the Order now before the House. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, is perfectly well aware of that.

I will certainly attempt to answer Lord Ogmore's questions, however—for this reason: it would look ill, if the matter went by default in your Lordships' House and no reply was given to the points raised by the noble Lord. Your Lordships must forgive me if I am not able fully to give him the figures he requires. They are important figures, which he will be given at an early moment. I can tell him, since he has drawn attention to the importance of long-term recruiting, that the figures for long-service recruits for October, 1957, show an increase of over 116 per cent. on those for October, 1956. That is only an isolated figure, and I do not attach more importance to it than the noble Lord does himself.


116 per cent. of what figure?


Over the equivalent figure for last year. The increase is a figure of 347.


There is a decline, as I read it; there is no increase; there is a decline in the really long-term, the nine-year, figures. There is no increase at all. The number has gone down from 193 to 156. There is an increase in the six-year figures, it is true.


The noble Lord and I are reading from different tables of figures. Let us not bandy figures about unless we are quite certain of them. Those figures can be gone into at the right time.


This is the right time.


I do not think the noble Viscount has any right to accuse me of not producing the figures he wants on a subject not immediately relevant, though admittedly very important. I am not trying to shirk this matter in any way. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, that I stand by every word I said in the debate he quoted. It is a very difficult matter indeed, and nobody—certainly nobody on this side—has pretended for one moment that to get the recruits is going to be an easy task. We are committed to it, as indeed are noble Lords opposite. They are publicly in evidence as having said that they wish to do away with National Service. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, say that he supported this, and that they would try to do everything possible to get these men. Nor is there a panacea or a "gimmick" to increase recruiting. We are taking a large number of steps, several of which have been put before your Lordships' House and the country, and there are more to follow. The figures may get worse before they get better. They may get worse until the pattern of the new Army is clear and the new Army settles down on a Regular basis. I can tell your Lordships one way in which we shall not get the Regular recruits we want, and that is to go around telling everybody we are not going to get them.


Has it not been our point of view—it is certainly mine—that while we should welcome a voluntary Army, we doubt whether, under present conditions, it is possible to get one in the time in which Government hope to get it. Is it not also the fact that we are now reaching the position when the Government, on their own figures—these are the Government's figures and not ours—will have only half the Army which they say is necessary.


We have no intention whatever of admitting defeat at this stage. We stated quite frankly and clearly in the White Paper that certain alternative action would be required if we could not get the numbers we want. But it is not a good way of achieving your objective to go round proclaiming from the house-tops what you propose to do if you do not succeed.


My Lords, I take great exception to the kind of statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that the consideration by your Lordships of this draft Order before us is not an occasion for dealing, in detail if necessary, with recruiting figures for the Army. This procedure has certainly achieved certain savings of time and economy in other directions, but it has never been intended to take away from either House of Parliament the right to criticise the present position of the Army in dealing with an Order for continuation of the revised Act. That has been made perfectly plain in the attitude which has been taken on this matter by the Opposition in another place. I should have thought it was quite reasonable, if any noble Lord in this House wished to raise details in regard to the Army on this Order, that the Minister in charge should be prepared to answer—as has usually been the case in discussions on such matters. The details which have been given by my noble friend are not new; they are established; they have been in the Printed Paper Office, most of them, for weeks, and the noble Lord ought to have been able to answer any one of the different questions put thereupon. That is the kind of treatment that Her Majesty's Opposition have a right to expect on such an occasion as this.

The other thing I would say is this; that, of course, chickens do come home to roost to all kinds of political Parties. I must say, with great regret, that many Members of the House—including, in the years gone by, some from the other side of the House—felt that there ought to have been years ago a really big and roving inquiry into the defence expenditure and the condition of the Army and the other Services. More than five years ago Members of your Lordships' House were asking for this, and we have now gradually got to the position where we are steadily, and even rapidly, disarming and leaving a feeling of insecurity in the minds of a great section of the population.

The figures given by my noble friend in regard to this Order, which applies to the Army in particular, show how the downward trend in recruiting figures continues. It seems to me—and perhaps I have longer experience than the noble Lord who has been handling this matter—that on the present trend it will not be possible to obtain by voluntary service the minimum forces required for security purposes, even on the revised military programme of Her Majesty's Government. Let us face that fact frankly now as it ought to have been faced years ago. If that is so, the nation is entitled to be told whether or not some form of National Service is ready to be continued so as to meet the minimum requirements of security. That is the kind of assurance that the country needs. I am not concerned about whether this Party or the other or a section of a Party have declared in favour of a voluntary service. Voluntary service is the ideal thing, if we can get it. It would have been ideal in 1946–47, when I had to introduce the National Service Bill: but it would have been quite impossible without that Bill to meet the commitments of the country. The position, therefore, ought to be faced and we should not be fobbed off with answers which are insufficient and incomplete.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords. I do not mind the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, being unreasonable, but I do object to his being unfair; and he really must not criticise my noble friend Lord Mancroft for not answering questions on this Order, which does not raise the question of recruiting for the Forces at large, when no notice had been given to him. I know of no Minister who has taken greater care to inform the House on all subjects than my noble friend has on all occasions. I feel that the noble Viscount has been the more unreasonable in view of the fact that we have agreed to have a debate on the subject of Defence as soon as we resume in January, when we can spend the whole day discussing recruiting, if the noble Viscount so wishes. I hope, therefore, that the slight outburst of which the noble Viscount has been guilty will not be repeated, at any rate at the expense of my noble friend, Lord Mancroft, who has always taken such great trouble in these matters.


My Lords, I have no sense of guilt, but I have certain duties to perform as Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, and to make sure that at such times as the House requires information, and is entitled to have it, the House gets it. Although we have a full day set aside—and we are much obliged for it—that is to be on January 22, weeks and weeks ahead. Surely we, as an Opposition, are entitled to expect from Her Majesty's Government, as we go along, all the information that we can possibly get, at every opportunity, so as to build up the basis of debate for that day.


My Lords, on a matter of fact, the noble Leader of the House charges my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, with not having given notice. I do not think that that was necessary. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, speaks for the Minister of Defence, and I do not know that it is necessary to give notice to a Minister on such an important matter. Such matters ought to be in the mind of that Minister and every Minister all the time, and the fact than; they have not got it in mind alarms me; but that is no answer. I did tell the noble Lord, not long before, that I proposing to raise this matter and he said that it was all right. If he had thought it was not all right, then, since we on this side are always quite ready to help, would have seen my noble Leader and no doubt other arrangements would have been made. Though it was not long before, I did in fact tell the noble Lord that I was going to raise this matter; and I did so, I should have thought, in time for him to get any facts he needed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.